Suicide, Madness and a Wedding in the Satu Mare Ghetto
The following is an excerpt from As The Lilacs Bloomed, the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Anna Hegedus, part of the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program
My errands complete, I headed to my new home, the ghetto. On the way, a troop of soldiers drew up beside me and broke into a horrible Jew-baiting song, full of the most obscene insults. It made my face burn. I started running like someone being pursued, and it wasn’t until I arrived home that I finally glanced at the newspaper I had picked up earlier. This was the antisemitic rag called Szamos, run by Mr. Albert Figus, a former freemason and a current member of parliament for the Arrow Cross Party.
The announcement right on the front page, in large type, read: “The gates to the ghetto will be closed as of four o’clock this afternoon and no one will be allowed to leave through them. Starting tomorrow, Jews will be forced to move into the ghetto from the city.” The signatories, county prefect Barnabás Endrődi and Mayor Lászlo Csóka, had proudly completed their work for Lászlo Endre, the antisemitic hangman-in-chief who organized the establishment of the ghettos. Perhaps he would recommend these glorious patriots for higher honours.
I had known that the ghetto order was coming and had dreaded it, but how I felt when the gates closed behind me is difficult to describe. There is no word to express the heartache of being wronged in one’s human dignity, the emotions of innocent people condemned. I was a prisoner, even if it wasn’t within four walls. I was a captive without any hope of escape.
The numbed silence of the ghetto was pierced by ghastly death cries.
The next day, in the pouring rain, the transport of Jews to the ghetto began. The first ones arrived from the surrounding villages, broken and wretched men, women and children with bundles on their backs. Their faces were full of fear, their eyes full of pain. The next group came from the city, block by block, evacuated by a committee of civilians and policemen who had only allowed them to bring a few items – clothing, underwear, bed linens and food – no money or other valuables. The wealthier Jewish families loaded the remainder of their lives and possessions onto carts and trudged behind them with bundles on their backs. The poorer Jews did not have to move – they had already been living in that part of the city where the ghetto was formed.
A jeering crowd lined the streets. Only behind a few windows could one see eyes wet with tears, but even these tender-hearted souls, ashamed, tried to hide their sympathy by withdrawing quickly from the window, because the henchmen who were lurking about considered it a crime to express any pity for us.
Once on the territory of the ghetto, the crowd was herded into the synagogue where the females – from young girls of ten to the eldest – were examined by midwives in case they had some valuables concealed in their bodies. Whose diabolical idea was this? Whose degenerate mind came up with it? Is this what my poor, kind, highly-esteemed, grey-haired mother had lived to the age of eighty-four to endure? She arrived beaten down and dispirited, together with my sister Erzsike and her family, and only then did I realize that I had been lucky to move into the ghetto in advance and escape this indignity.
Over the following days, more and more new groups continued to arrive. It was so crowded you could hardly breathe. There was not even a handful of space left in the apartments, the furniture removed in order to accommodate all the people. Then, the occupants of the Nagykároly ghetto were brought in as well, among them many of our friends and relatives.
The newly-formed Jewish council was tasked with assigning a place to each person and resolving any problems. However, the crème de la crème of Jewish society was then in police custody, and thus the council members were not necessarily those best suited to the task. Their president was a good choice, but he was a very old man, and the younger ones were more preoccupied with their own affairs than with those of the community.
Each building in the ghetto resembled a busy beehive. There were about 17,000 people packed into three city blocks. The rooms were lined with mattresses pushed so tight up against each other that there was no space left to pass between them. We had to step on the mattresses to get across the room, sometimes trampling on people’s feet. Even the smallest rooms had at least ten people living in them. Thirty of us, all relatives and good friends, occupied three rooms.
To our great surprise, even those who had been given life sentences were transported from the prison to the ghetto. We concluded that, in the authorities’ estimation, the ghetto was worse than jail.
This same apartment building housed the families of some clerks and factory workers from Bikszád, and we found out that their sufferings had been even greater than ours. They were detained for days, locked up in the synagogue without food or water. Anyone who tried to bring them food was prevented from going near the place. Then, bringing only as much as they could carry, they were forced to march along the road for fifty or so kilometres, stumbling under the physical and emotional weight of their loads.
Water in the ghetto was piped in from the city and a factory building was fitted up to be a hospital, and this somehow gave the appearance of permanence to our stay. We were among our own kind and this made ghetto life bearable. We didn’t have to see the jeering faces, the despising smiles; we didn’t have to hear the Jew-baiting songs of the soldiers and Leventes. Nobody talked about deportation. We figured we would live in the ghetto until the long-awaited miracle – the Red Star – would redeem us from the yellow star. But we waited in vain.
The young people were assigned different communal service roles: Ágnes became a nurse and János became a policeman, which greatly appealed to him and made him feel like a very important person. Each day, Ági eagerly awaited the arrival of her fiancé, vacillating between joy and concern. Mr. Sárközi, the ghetto commandant, a bow-legged, sideburn sporting, gnome-like terror, promised, with a show of good humour, that he would not pose any obstacles to the marriage, and that as soon as Pali arrived, the pair could depart immediately. My husband, still in the jail, was handed the paternal consent form for his signature. Everything was in place – only the fiancé was missing.
Then the authorities began searching the houses of those who had already been living in the area prior to its becoming the ghetto. I was informed that as long as I surrendered all my valuables, no harm would befall me, but if they found anything that had not been declared and handed over, they would intern me. This menace of internment was like a popular refrain being played over and over. They even took our wedding bands; we had been allowed to retain them up to that point, but now they changed their minds. Amidst sobs, Ági removed her recently acquired precious treasure from her finger. “We have nothing of value any more,” I said dejectedly. As soon as I picked up my fountain pen to sign the declaration, the head of the search committee pounced on me. “The pen has a gold tip and you failed to declare it. This is cause for internment!” Ultimately, he was satisfied with simply pocketing my beautiful pen, my cherished keepsake.
At last, after all the trouble, misfortune and suffering, there was something to rejoice about – my husband and his fellow prisoners were released! After almost four weeks of imprisonment, my beloved husband arrived all skinny and pale, but he came alive again as soon as he was in our midst. Now that the ghetto was in place, there was no need to keep anyone in jail. To our great surprise, even those who had been given life sentences were transported from the prison to the ghetto. We concluded that, in the authorities’ estimation, the ghetto was worse than jail.
A few days later, a kid came running to us, announcing that the fiancé of Miss Ágnes was in front of the gate and he was not being allowed to enter. Oh, how fortunate he would have been, had he been refused entry at that time. Ágnes, not suspecting what a fatal step this would mean for the future, hurried to the gate all flushed with happiness and requested an entrance permit for him, as had been promised. It was graciously granted – most likely they were having a good laugh at our expense all the while – and Pali entered the ghetto. Of course, the young couple only had eyes for each other. They arrived hand in hand, totally oblivious to the tragic circumstances under which they had been reunited. Our hearts grew even heavier. This was not how we had imagined the wedding of our one and only adored daughter. Oh, how we had been planning, how we had been preparing, for this most important step in the lifetime of a young woman. We had been saving up for her trousseau ever since she reached the age of fifteen. There was a little nest being built for them in Buda, where they were to begin their happy married life. At that moment, all those desires, hopes and plans seemed to be crumbling around us.
The wedding took place on Saturday, May 13, at noon. They left the ghetto accompanied by a policeman and a witness, our friend Endre (Bandi) Wohl, whose house we were living in, and arrived at city hall. Their second witness, Dr. Gusztáv Roóz, a childhood playmate of mine, was still living in the city because he was serving as an air-raid doctor. He joined them at city hall.
I know, as I write this, that both of those witnesses are no longer alive. A few days later, when, as I previously mentioned, Dr. Gusztáv Roóz was supposed to be transferred to the ghetto along with all the other physicians who were still living in the city at that point, he gave poison to his wife, his mother and himself. He was the only one who died at that time. His eighty-year-old mother and his wife, an ophthalmologist, ended up in Auschwitz. I only recently found out, while writing this memoir, that close to the end of the war, Dr. Endre Wohl died of starvation.
Ágnes and Pali, the two sweetest, most gentle people in the world, stood blissfully before the justice of the peace exchanging wedding vows, having forgotten all the bitter trials of the past. There was no religious ceremony, and the “wedding feast” consisted of canned chicken soup. Their plan was to travel to Budapest and leave Ági with Pali’s parents, who were very fond of her. There was no talk of a ghetto in Budapest yet, so we thought it a better idea for Ági to stay there, but until their departure, what space could be found for the newly-weds in a crowded building with ten people in each and every room?
One of Ági’s friends, Kati (née Kalocsay) Havas, offered to hand over her small kitchen, which currently provided shelter for herself, her husband and her angelic little son, who was only a few months old. They would move into the rooming house that their house had been converted into in recent weeks. The young couple gladly accepted the invitation. So, with an aching heart but wearing a smile, I set about to furnish and decorate the little chamber with white lilacs. Let those flowers adorn their plain, unadorned nuptials. To think that my daughter had been dreaming of a white wedding dress, a wreath of myrtle, in a sanctuary decorated with lilacs, and this was what it all amounted to: brief wedding vows and a police guard. The wed- ding may have lacked external trappings, but that was amply made up for by internal feelings of happiness and, most importantly, their immense love for each other and their optimism for better times to come. They were only interested in one thing: to be joined together at last after their long engagement, and they left on their honeymoon to the neighbour’s place.
Feeling glum, I packed their suitcases for their trip to Budapest. The next day, all ready to go, they asked Mr. Sárközi for their travel permit. This tyrant laughed in their faces and declared, “One can only enter the ghetto; one cannot leave it.” Instead of saving our daughter, sweet Pali had to share the misfortune that had become our lot.
It was a few days later that the news reached us that the physicians living in the city would be brought to the ghetto. In addition to Dr. Gusztáv Roóz, Dr. Samu Fekete, a famous old ophthalmologist, and my husband’s dearest friend, Dr. Oszkár György, an excellent radiologist, also attempted suicide. This news had a devastating effect on us. We grieved for them and at the same time we envied them, for having enough will to die but not enough to live. Dr. Oszkár György had also given poison to his mother, who had terminal cancer. At first he was resuscitated, and then his mother also had to be revived so that he would not be charged with murder. She was successfully revived, but in an unguarded moment, he strangled himself with the cord of his pyjamas. Thus ended the life of a young, vital and fine human being and physician. His mother died in the ghetto, released from her suffering.
A few days later, another horrible story raced through the ghetto like wildfire. A beautiful young girl, Annuska, the daughter of well-respected journalist Sándor Dénes, poisoned herself. Her gentil fiancé, an army officer, was raging at the ghetto gates until Annuska’s corpse was handed over to him. He buried her in her wedding dress, late at night, to avoid being an object of pity. Not even a Gothic novel, the product of a crazed imagination, could have depicted horrors of this kind.
Dr. Jenő Farkas, Szatmár’s best lawyer, the wise optimist who shared our quarters in the ghetto, suffered a heart attack on hearing all this news. He was lying motionless for days. We took care not to excite him in any way. The already saddened house was now engulfed in the stifled silence that surrounds the gravely ill. His devoted wife managed to care for and rejuvenate him, only to later deliver him alive to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
One of the buildings in the ghetto, 7 Báthory Street, had become infamous because it was turned into a “torture chamber” where the gendarme-bandits from Kolozsvár were using medieval methods. All those who, according to them, did not make a full declaration of their valuables, or hid them with gentile friends, were brought there. People staggered out of this house more dead than alive, bloody and beaten to a pulp. In the better case, they left on their own two feet, but most of the time they were carried out on a stretcher.
The numbed silence of the ghetto was pierced by ghastly death cries. Day and night, people worried it would be their turn, hearts racing, nerves strained, turning pale each time a door opened or a doorbell rang. Some of our housemates had already been taken away, among them my niece and her husband. We anxiously awaited their return. Their daughter, Kató, had been waiting for them on the street and suddenly she rushed in, distraught, saying, “They are coming, they can barely walk!” The poor souls arrived, staggering but forcing themselves to smile. The gendarmes had shown her some mercy – it was only her hands that bore the bloody welts inflicted by truncheons, but he had been beaten on the soles of his feet until he fainted from the excruciating pain. His whole body was covered in bruises but he did not confess, lest he put his gentile friends in harm’s way.
The factory owner Sándor Gerő was beaten half to death, and when he dragged himself home, he took poison. Some of the women, among them the wife of Mr. Farkas, an engineer, were tortured to the point that they had to be taken directly to the hospital, and from there they were loaded on the hospital train bound for Auschwitz. A woman who lived in a building that faced ours went mad. There was no place to take her, and so we had to listen to her appalling and incoherent raving, which woke us at dawn and prevented us from falling asleep at night.
We were in a constant state of anxiety, and ghetto life was so unbearable that we were scarcely shocked when the authorities dropped a bombshell: We were going to be deported. Of course, we were under the impression that we would be sent to work, and we would gladly work as long as we could live in peace somewhere, together with our family, no matter how modest the circumstances. Two versions of where they were taking us circulated. According to one, we’d be transferred to work on the puszta, the plains, near Debrecen, and according to the other, a workers’ settlement near Kassa. There was no talk at all of being transported out of the country; on the contrary, the minister responsible gave his word of honour to the Jewish council of Pest that this would not happen. Still, there were a few wise people, mostly among the religious Jews, who, at the news of deportation, managed to flee the ghetto with the help of the police or sometimes the German military, for a lot of money.
On May 18, the tenants of the first street were ordered to get ready. They were allowed to bring along two sets of underwear, two sets of clothes and some food. A lot of people volunteered to be on the first transport, out of fear of the torture chambers operating in the ghetto. We had thought that we would remain in the ghetto, so we had been very careful with our provisions. We knew that we couldn’t count on getting a new supply. Although there had been a few days when good friends were allowed to bring parcels to the police guarding the ghetto, we hardly received any of what they brought; the police and the gendarmes consumed most of it. However, now that we knew that we’d be taken away, we began to squander our provisions. We shared our food with those who did not have enough to last them for the duration of our stay. We kept eating and drinking to ensure that very little food would be left for the enjoyment of our oppressors. We also distributed our surplus clothes and underwear.
On May 19, the evacuation of the ghetto began. People were herded to the square, where they were stripped naked and once again subjected to an awful search, in case they had hidden something in their bodies. Their parcels were scattered and rifled through, a lot of the contents removed. Afterwards, the sad procession started off toward the railway station. Bundles on their backs, people clutched their children, who had been sentenced to death.
Never have I seen a more heart-wrenching sight.
Within about two weeks, the whole ghetto was emptied except our street, which was scheduled to leave with the last transport. By this time, our nerves were so frayed from having witnessed the torment of tens of thousands of people, from having learned of the suicides of many friends, from endlessly agonizing over the dilemma of whether we should kill ourselves or be dragged into the unknown. We had all become wrecks.
My mother was constantly imploring my brother-in-law, a physician, to give her an injection of morphine to relieve her for good from the suffering that awaited her. My mother, who had always been known for her wisdom and intelligence, asked, “Why do I need to go through all this? I would like to rest beside my husband and daughter in our cemetery plot in Szatmár. Why do you let me be taken somewhere else to die? There is no way I will survive the adversities of the trip.” I wish my brother-in-law had obliged and we had been able to bury her here. What solace it would give if she had not had to endure the distress of the trip, if the sighs of our grieving souls were able to fly over her grave rather than over the forever cursed fields of Auschwitz.
After such awful, panic-ridden days, the sorrowful day of the last transport arrived. On May 31, 1944, we were herded to the ghetto square. Our lives were all that counted and I was only interested in the fate of our family. I didn’t give a thought to all that we had to leave behind: our new house, the result of thirty years of my husband’s hard work, and all that we had managed to acquire and save up during our twenty-three years of marriage. I didn’t care about any of it. As long as we were allowed to stay alive and together, nothing else mattered. Some of our housemates cried over each of their possessions. Our landlady said a tearful goodbye to every shrub in her garden, and she was already at the front door when she ran back to hide a nice new pot in the attic. The pot is probably still there, but she will never come home. She ended up in the crematorium.
At the square, we were put through the terrible search procedure and were sitting around on our bundles, dejected, waiting for the transfer. At the front door, we had parted with my mother, who as a favour had been accommodated on the hospital train to make her trip more comfortable, along with my sister Erzsike, who would ride in the physicians’ car. We didn’t say our goodbyes because we thought we would meet again once we arrived at our destination.
We were close to fainting from the terrible heat and were anxious to depart when – half an hour before the departure – my niece Zsófi’s husband arrived at the ghetto, after serving two and a half years in the Ukraine. He entered of his own free will, having run away from his company to be with his wife and father. He had read cards postmarked “Waldsee” that the Germans forced deportees from Lower Carpathia to write on their arrival at Auschwitz, which read: “We are fine, the whole family is together, we are working, the food and our treatment are satisfactory.” Of course, the purpose of making people write these cards was to ensure that Jews would not flee before deportation. Thus, the family was complete, and so was the tragedy. Both Ágnes’s and Zsófi’s young husbands came with us into our exile.
The procession began to move off. We loaded our parcels on a small cart. My husband and the other men pushed it to the station, constantly wiping away the sweat running down their faces. Among the men was our landlord Endre Wohl, a first lieutenant in the reserve army who had fought through four years of World War I and had pinned his medals on his jacket to show the world how someone who fought valiantly for the Hungarian homeland is rewarded. Behind the cart, my son-in-law was pushing a dilapidated pram loaded with belongings that did not fit on the cart. Ági and I walked behind them with knapsacks, each carrying a roll of bed linen and small bags. Stooped under the weight of the parcels and the heartache, we made our way to the train station, through streets lined with curious onlookers.
It’s impossible to ever forget the anguish of this passage. We relived our whole lives on this miserable road, just as a dying man supposedly does in his last moments. We said goodbye to the city where we were born, brought up, started a family, and had been very, very happy.
Our loved ones, even our great grandparents, rest here in the cemeteries, yet we were told this was not our homeland. I envied the dead as we passed by the cemetery. How much easier it was for them to lie among flowers, unaware of all that we were going through as we walked toward a horrible, uncertain future. Knees buckled, degraded, defiled, carrying the achievements of a whole lifetime in our knapsacks.
Finally this Calvary ended as well, and we arrived at the station. Our plan was for the occupants of the Wohl building, about seventy people in all, to travel together in one cattle car. Perhaps it would be easier to bear our suffering among friends and relatives, and so we were waiting for the others, sitting glumly on our parcels. No sooner had we sat down than an officer of the gendarmerie, all spit and polish, stomped over and rudely yelled at us, ordering us to get on a cattle car that was missing exactly five people. We said that we were waiting for the other members of our family, but the officer took a swing at my husband, at which point we hurried like crazy to climb on the car, which already had seventy people jammed into it. Understandably, we were received with much grumbling, and we could hardly find any room to put down our parcels and sit on them.
As soon as we got in, the car was locked up.